U.S. Opponents and Proponents of Iran Deal Both Gaining Momentum

After Menendez announces opposition, agreement gains some momentum when Rhode Island senators release joint statement in support.

James Arkin, Real Clear Politics
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Sen. Robert Menendez.Credit: AP
James Arkin, Real Clear Politics

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.com

Several lawmakers this week announced their positions on the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran, and both opponents and supporters of the deal can claim some momentum.

The latest in the recent flurry of decisions came Tuesday afternoon, with New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez becoming just the second Democrat to openly oppose the agreement, while Rhode Island Democratic Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse both announced their support.

Menendez’s opposition doesn’t come as much of a surprise, as he was a harsh critic of the Obama administration’s negotiations both before and after the agreement was reached. In a lengthy speech Tuesday afternoon, Menendez emphasized he voted against the Iraq War in 2002, and that he did not believe, as President Obama has said, that the alternative to the agreement is war with Iran.

“I have looked into my own soul, and my devotion to principle may once again lead me to an unpopular course, but if Iran is to acquire a nuclear bomb, it will not have my name on it,” Menendez said, adding that he will vote both to disapprove of the agreement and to override a veto if Obama blocks the disapproval.

Soon after Menendez announced his opposition, however, the agreement gained some positive momentum when Rhode Island’s senators released a joint statement in support. Reed’s support in particular is a major victory for the White House because of his position as the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“As this debate continues, I urge Americans to pay less attention to overheated rhetoric, and instead, listen to our leading scientists, active and former military officers, diplomats, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and non-partisan experts who’ve studied the facts and concluded that this agreement is ‘stringent,’ ‘technically sound,’ and ‘the most effective means available to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,’” Reed said.

Whitehouse, in his own statement, said he thought the agreement could succeed with “persistent watchfulness and effort,” and that “I do not see a better credible option.”

Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono also announced her support earlier this week, saying in a statement Monday that while the deal is not perfect, “It is the best option to halt Iran’s nuclear weapon program.”

Hirono, Whitehouse and Reed make 23 Democrats supporting the agreement, with only two – Menendez and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer – opposed. If Obama vetoes a resolution of disapproval, it will take 34 senators to override that decision and block the agreement. That means just 11 more Democrats will have to sign on in support to allow the deal to squeak through, which seems likely.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking in his home state of Kentucky Monday, conceded that Obama has “a great likelihood of success” in pushing the agreement forward, according to the Associated Press.

“The campaign of the president to get it approved will be entirely among Democrats, probably Democrats in very safe Democratic seats whose only fear of re-election would probably be getting a primary," McConnell told reporters, according to the AP.

McConnell’s notion that the agreement’s support will be purely partisan also gained steam this week with two prominent Republicans deciding to oppose the deal. Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post making his opposition official. He called the inspections of Iran’s nuclear program “deeply flawed” and added, “Rather than end Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, over time this deal industrializes the program of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.”

Corker was expected to oppose the deal, however, especially after his particularly harsh questioning of Secretaries John Kerry, Ernest Moniz and Jack Lew in a committee hearing last month, during which hesaid the negotiators got “fleeced.”

In a bigger blow to the White House’s hopes for some Republican support, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona announced over the weekend that he would oppose the deal. Flake, who was highly supportive of the negotiations and said he was carefully weighing the agreement, was seen as the only chance to convince a GOP senator to back the pact.

“Hoping that Iran’s nuclear ambitions might change after a 15-year sabbatical might be a bet worth making. Believing that Iran’s regional behavior will change tomorrow – while giving up tools to deter or modify such behavior – is not,” Flake said.

A vote on the deal is expected soon after Labor Day, when Congress returns from its month-long recess, and both the House and Senate are expected to be able to pass resolutions disapproving of the nuclear agreement. Both sides can claim some momentum as the clock ticks down toward the final vote, but ultimately, it will remain a heavy lift for Republicans to sway enough Democrats to override Obama’s veto.

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